February 21, 2022

MEHLER | Happy Birthday Toni Morrison

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February 18th, 2022 would have been Toni Morrison’s 81st birthday. Most current Cornell students could identify her as one of Cornell’s most famous alumni, but I believe her recent surge in popularity at Cornell can be attributed to two things. 

The first, unfortunately, was her passing in 2019. When Cornellian giants such as Morrison, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Frank H. T. Rhodes pass on, their legacies and names immediately rise to the front of our memories. The second reason I believe Morrison’s popularity continues to grow at Cornell has nothing to do with her accomplishments or her death, but rather with her status as namesake of Cornell’s newest dining hall. The overhung sterling silver letters of “Morrison Dining Hall” fail to tell her full story, but start the conversation of one of our most important Cornellians. 

On Feb. 18, my friends and I trekked up from Collegetown and West Campus to finally eat at the new dining hall, hoping the initial rush of excitement from its recent opening had passed. Upon arrival, the line to swipe in was already out the door; by no means had its popularity died down. My brother, who lives on North Campus, had beaten us there and claimed a table while we were stuck in line. Finally, we made it through and began to search for him.

Once you enter Morrison, the sheer size of the place grabs your attention. From any one point of the dining hall, you cannot see the entirety of the space; endless marble tables and high-top chairs fill the gaps between a dozen specialty stations.

While I looked around, finding my brother and venturing across the hall, the setup reminded me of Morrison’s predecessors on North Campus’ RPCC and Appel. In stark contrast to West Campus’ one-way snaking line system, students scooted past other students with full plates of food, jetting from one end of the hall to the other. 

While I am certain the Sun’s Dining section will cover every aspect of Morrison’s food better than I can, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality. The pizza was far better than the average central New York slice (although I must admit, far behind anything within a ten-mile radius of Grand Central), and the water machines were very fancy (and definitely intuitive to operate the first time around). There was even a special dessert at the East End Market within the dining hall that day: Toni Morrison Birthday Ice Cream Floats.

None of us had put together that we happened to visit Morrison Dining on Toni Morrison’s birthday, but it led us down a conversation of the names on buildings and how they came to be there. There has been plenty of discussion around how buildings are named, and even more articles about their origins, but the most important conclusion we landed on was that the names of buildings matter. While nowhere close to a nuclear physicist myself, I know more about Hans Bethe than I do about any other scientist after living in his namesake dorm for the past two years. ILR’s founding dean Irving Ives, Human Ecology’s founder Martha Van Rensselaer, and other notable Cornellians continue their legacies through building names across campus.

With the three remaining North Campus dorms of Ginsberg, McClintock and Hu on their way, it makes me smile to know some of Cornell’s most notable alumni will become conversation starters once again. I encourage everyone to take a second and learn about the Cornellian whose building you enter the most, discovering who they were as a person and as a student formerly in our shoes. From the Ag Quad’s Mann and Warren to Central Campus’ Bailey and Baker to West Campus’ Keeton, Bethe, Rose, Becker and Cook, each of our buildings’ names have a Cornellian behind them, all of whom have left their mark on our home. Learning their stories makes our time here feel that much more magical. And to the newest famous Cornellian to join the ranks of named buildings, thank you for a lovely meal. Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison.